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Kingdom O’ Magic: Overall Structure

Kingdom O’ Magic provides a choice of two player characters and three quests.

The two player characters are Thidney, a “lizard bloke”, and Shah-Ron, a “girlie”. Thidney specializes in melee while Shah-Ron specializes in magic, and there’s at least one variation in the puzzle content based on which character you choose, but the differences are not great. So the choice is mainly a cosmetic one, varying the sprites and the voice acting. For once, I actually prefer the male character — if you’re going to be weird and blobby-looking, you might as well go for broke and be a weird blobby-looking lizard, right? Also, I think his comic delivery is better. But in the unlikely event that you play this game, I recommend giving them both a try to see how some of the sillier animations change.

The choice of quest, though, varies the game content significantly. I actually finished one of the three quests back in the day, but won’t consider the game truly finished until I’ve completed all three. The one I finished then, and re-finished in my last session, is “The Good Old-Fashioned Traditional Quest”, in which your goal is to steal the Smaug-analogue’s treasure. This is supposed to be the easiest quest. You can’t defeat the dragon in combat; the only way to get rid of it is to take out a mob hit on it, resulting in a cutscene out of The Godfather, with the dragon brought down in a hail of gunfire while buying oranges from a fruit cart. Then there’s “The Bizarre & Slightly Twisted Quest”, the alleged hardest one, in which you’re supposed to recover the Lost Lava Lamp of the Ancients and possibly defeat the Dark Lord, and “The Magnificent 7-11 Quest”, in which you recruit between seven and eleven warriors to defend a town from attack. All three use the same map, but switch things up within it. A door might be permanently locked in one scenario and not another. Items you’re used to from your last quest might not be available. Rooms that were guarded by monsters might be monster-free, or vice versa.

The thing is, though, a lot of the content doesn’t vary between quests. They’re three variations on the same adventure, not three completely different adventures. And this applies even to puzzles, including some puzzles to obtain items that are only useful in one of the quests. So in any particular quest, you’ll inevitably spend some of your time solving puzzles that won’t actually help you at all.

As a result, I’m a little suspicious of the given difficulty rankings. The hardest quest will be whichever one you attempt first, because that’s the one where you have the least information. That’s where you’ll solve puzzles for all three scenarios without any idea of whether they’ll help you at all. It’s also where you’ll run into obstacles you genuinely can’t overcome with the resources available and have no idea that you can’t overcome them.

Kingdom O’ Magic

I’ve been going through my remaining point-and-click adventure CD-ROMs, but between SecuROM DRM, 16-bit executables, and just random display bugs, most of them aren’t playable under Windows 10. I really am going to have to get a Window 98 or XP machine working again if I’m going to make a serious go of clearing the Stack. 1Actually, come to think of it, I do have a working Windows 98 machine at this point. It can’t access its video card’s 3D features, but that’s not always necessary for these games, particularly the ones with the 16-bit executables. Until then, there’s one thing that I can always play: go back far enough, and we get DOS games, which can be played under DOSBox.

Kingdom O’ Magic was designed by Fergus McNeill, who’s better known for his work on text adventures during the 1980s, particularly satirical text adventures such as Bored of the Rings, an adaptation of the Tolkien parody novel of the same name, and The Boggit, a send-up of the classic Melbourne House Hobbit game. KOM is largely an extension of those into the world of graphics. It makes some pretense of the setting being just a typical generic fantasy world, but really, the whole structure and content of the place is very specifically modeled after Tolkien, with random additions. And it’s got randomly-wandering NPCs that you can pick fights with in a very Melbourne-Hobbit way.

The Tolkien-ness is fairly overshadowed by the wacky surrealism, though. In some places, the wacky has accreted in layers. Like, how does the player character arrive in the game world? Via an animation of a Star Trek-style transporter beam. But wait, that’s not enough. We have to show a cutscene of the player’s ship arriving. And once we’ve done that, we might as well make it shaped like a toilet, and make a flushing noise when it engages its engines just in case the player hasn’t noticed that it’s shaped like a toilet. That’s what the game’s sense of humor is like: always embellishing jokes with details, sometimes even when it hasn’t actually told the joke yet. That, and throwing in random anachronisms, like a car broken down by the side of the road in the middle of the Lothlorien analogue or whatever. The latter is actually funnier, to my mind. There’s a special half-trolling humor that consists of letting people notice absurdities on their own without dwelling on them.

The game runs at 640×480 resolution with no anti-aliasing. Characters are pre-rendered sprites made of ugly blobby bits, scaling badly with distance and running extremely cheap-looking animations. There’s one bit where the player character wins a dance contest, and the dancing is ludicrously made of just the character being moved around like an action figure and running bits of their walk cycle backward, while the camera cuts around and zooms in and out like it’s showing off amazing moves. This isn’t just a low production budget. This is camp. This is a game that’s willing to be bad for humorous effect, and it actually works a lot of the time.

This works into the puzzles, too. They’re extremely un-subtly clued, with the narrator breaking the fourth wall to compliment himself on how deftly he wove clues into the narration and the like.

One joke I’d like to describe before signing off for today: the day/night cycle. Day and night are of course crucial to any decent Tolkien adaptation; you don’t get trolls wandering around in the daytime. Here, the transition from night to day is marked by cutscene of a wrecking ball swinging in to shatter the night sky into a thousand pieces, revealing the daytime sky behind it, and the transition from day to night is a matter of a new night sky backdrop dropping into place and taking a moment to settle. It took me a while to realize that this isn’t just more wacky surrealism: it’s puns. Day breaks. Night falls. Even when he’s working with graphics, McNeill is still thinking in text.

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1. Actually, come to think of it, I do have a working Windows 98 machine at this point. It can’t access its video card’s 3D features, but that’s not always necessary for these games, particularly the ones with the 16-bit executables.

Ankh: One Last Thought

Now, I’ve compared the Assil/Thara relationship in Ankh to both Guybrush/Elaine and Prince/Farah. But on reflection, there’s one component of both of those that’s missing: male incompetence. In Secret of Monkey Island, Elaine has the whole LeChuck situation in hand until Guybrush shows up and, in his eagerness to rescue her when she doesn’t really need it, inadvertently wrecks her plan. In Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the Prince unleashes the power of the Sands without meaning to, creating the conditions that he and Farah spend the entire rest of the game trying to reverse.

Nothing like that happens in Ankh. Yes, Assil sets his own misfortunes in motion through a moment of clumsiness, but this doesn’t affect Thara directly, and happens before he even meets her. If anything, Thara is the one who steps into this role, attracting the attention of the Pharaoh’s guards at one point by defacing some statuary while Assil is otherwise occupied.

The point is one of forgiveness. In Monkey Island, the male hero is forgiven instantly, once he’s cleared up the mess he caused. In Prince of Persia, he’s never really forgiven — once he rewrites history, his transgressions are forgotten, but that’s not the same thing. But in Ankh, there’s nothing for Thara to forgive. From her point of view, he’s been a perfect angel, and if her hostility toward him drops a few notches from when they first meet, it’s because that hostility was never warranted in the first place. It was just her lashing out because of her situation.

Instead, Assil’s ending reconciliation is with the Pharaoh — one of the story’s villains, whose dislike of Assil was basically a matter of whim, not based on anything Assil actually did. The more I think about this, the more I feel like the story is lacking something. Assil is just a little too abrasive for no one to ever be legitimately angry with him.

Ankh: The Underworld

Osiris is the only god we see in this game, and he’s basically portrayed as a demon — immensely powerful but trapped, and summonable with the right rituals. His interest in the Ankh is simply that it’ll let him return to the mortal world and escape the endless paperwork of processing all the dead souls of Egypt — although, apparently only Egypt; when Thara shows up in a sort of Han Solo Death Star moment, he has no power over her because she’s Arabian, not Egyptian. A convenient way to mix mythologies, this notion of limited jurisdiction! The game doesn’t delve into the implications, but I suppose the sequels might.

When Assil tells Osiris how he overcame the obstacles on the way to this place, Osiris says “So, you think you’re really clever, don’t you?” — to which Assil replies “Well, yeah. A little.” The thing is, though, he didn’t need to be all that clever to get that far. The Underworld is built up as this terribly difficult and dangerous place where you’ll face great trials, but when you actually get there, it’s just about the easiest section of the game. It’s a bit anticlimactic. Now, I’m all in favor of things easing up at an adventure game’s climax, which is a bit counterintuitive — the obvious approach is to put the greatest challenges at the end. But really, the ending is where you want to keep momentum. There’s few things worse than getting stuck right when you were on the verge of wrapping everything up. But I think this game carries that a bit too long. It isn’t just the final confrontation that’s easy, it’s the entire final chapter.

Alas, the bugs are a larger obstacle. I haven’t been talking much about the bugs in this game, even though they’re all over the place, because they’ve been minor cosmetic things — a pop in the animation here, a dialogue that can be hit out of sequence there. Exits that can be clicked from the wrong side. The occasional permeable wall. The very first thing you see in the game is the “walk to” cursor appearing briefly before the main menu comes up. Just little things like that, things that I’d want to iron out before shipping if I were working on the game. Here in the endgame, though, for the first time I hit a bug that actually interfered with my progress and made me load a save. (Fortunately, I’ve been keeping multiple saves. In fact, that’s one of the bugs: the option to overwrite saves instead of creating new ones doesn’t work.) What happens is: If your confrontation with Osiris goes wrong, the game resets to just outside his lair, with Assil excusing the whole thing as just a vision. But it doesn’t always reset things as thoroughly as it should, and one time the camera stayed inside, making it impossible for me to click on the stairs into the place. You’d think that the “Anniversary Edition” remake would be an opportunity to fix this sort of thing, but heck, maybe it introduced it.

As to the ending, the Pharaoh’s daughter is basically a non-character, just a thing that has to be retrieved. Assil and Thara basically wind up together, which, okay, by that point they’ve kind of earned. I mean, they’ve literally been through hell together. Confronted an actual god and defeated him, which is actually in character for Thara, what with her anti-authoritarian streak. I was kind of afraid that the story would demote her from Independent-Minded, Self-Willed Rebel Woman to mere Hero’s Girlfriend, but it really doesn’t do too badly on that score, given that this is still a story centered around the male hero.

I have mixed feelings about this game. It’s definitely not as polished as the design deserves. The humor often fails, or perhaps just isn’t pitched at my level. Even after I learned to run, there was still way too much walking around. But it could have been a lot worse.

Ankh: Ankh

One piece of good news: I figured out how to run! You do it by double-clicking. This greatly improves the experience of crossing the desert. Just like in The Watchmaker, I’m only learning how I’m supposed to be interacting with the game when it’s half over. But in The Watchmaker, I had only myself to blame for not reading the manual. Here, I have no manual. I really feel like the game is supposed to have one, but it’s not in the box, nor on Steam.

Mind you, the game is also politely making running across the desert a bit less of an issue by repeatedly temporarily locking me into rooms. Limiting the scope in this way makes it easier to find all the necessary items. In my last session, I didn’t need the walkthrough at all. The two-player-character section is over, though, which is a shame.

This seems to be one of those getting-in-deeper-and-deeper-trouble stories. People make attempts on Assil’s life, the death curse (which initially manifested as a tattoo on his hand) spreads across his body and starts to interfere with his motor functioning (in cutscenes, at least), and after a certain point, not only does the Pharaoh have it in for him, but Osiris himself does as well. Well, mortals have managed to survive the wrath of the gods before. There are myths about it. Consider Odysseus, arguably the prototype for your Monkey-Island-style adventure game hero, overcoming trials and challenges through a mix of trickery and perspicaciousness.

What did Assil do to earn the personal enmity of kings and gods? Mainly, it’s not really about him. It’s about the macguffin he wears around his neck: an ankh necklace, acquired in the same mishap that earned him his death curse. Why it’s so important, I don’t know, except that it apparently came from the gods, and the gods want it back. Assil himself mistook it for a bottle opener. In fact, he’s not the only character to make that mistake, which seems really strange to me, given what a prevalent symbol it is in Egyptian antiquity. Sure, this game isn’t a realistic depiction of Egypt, but it’s a little like setting a game in, say, France and having half the cast not know what the Eiffel Tower is.

My main task right now is to find the Pharaoh’s daughter, who Osiris has taken away to the Underworld, to ransom her for the ankh. So, we’re back to rescue-the-princess again. NPCs start gossiping about the disappearance immediately after Thara leaves your side, intending to lay low for a while, and this made me initially wonder: Is Thara actually the Pharaoh’s daughter? This turned out not to be the case, but it would have been interesting. Thara is fiercely opposed to the Pharaoh’s rule, but expresses this opposition mainly through defacing monuments and throwing banana peels — in other words, trying to humiliate him rather than overthrow him violently. I could easily see a father-daughter dynamic in that.

Ankh: Thara

OK, I’ll admit it: I’ve been using hints. Steam has an excellent walkthrough for this game, by user GratefulDead94, that’s organized into short sections, each devoted to a single puzzle. Here’s the thing: I’ve really been finding that I don’t need help with the puzzles. The puzzles are pretty clear. When I get stuck, it’s invariably because I missed some small, difficult-to-notice object. Using the walkthrough is basically equivalent to the feature some adventure games have where you can press a button to highlight clickables. This is in contrast to my recent experiences with The Watchmaker, which had both hard-to-notice objects and unclear puzzles.

Actually, in some ways I wish this game were a little more like The Watchmaker. The ability to zoom into first-person mode would be welcome in some places, store shelves and the like where there are lots of little things in a small area. And in one respect, the game becomes a lot more like The Watchmaker in Chapter 3, where you rescue the captive damsel I mentioned in the previous post and she joins you as a second playable character. But already I’m liking what Ankh is doing with two-person puzzles better than anything The Watchmaker did. It quickly finds a way to separate the two of them, but keep them in different parts of the same environment, where their actions can affect each other. It reminds me a lot of the sections involving Farah and the Prince working together in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, I’m noticing that the female lead has a lot in common with Farah. For starters, her name is Thara, which is pretty blatant. Both are members of important families from lands to the east: Farah is a princess from India, Thara is the daughter of an ambassador from Arabia. Both are captives, yet both are strong-willed and argumentative and willing to insult the hero to his face. Both, against their will, wear skimpy red outfits — Farah because it’s what her captors gave her, Thara because it’s all that Assil could find to replace her prison clothes. It seems likely that Thara is not just a deliberate homage to Farah, but that this was supposed to be obvious to the player. PoP:TSoT was just two years old when Ankh was originally released, so would have been fairly fresh in people’s minds. It only took me as long as it did to notice the similarity because it’s been so long since I’ve played it.

And what of their male counterparts? I suppose there’s some similarity of personality: Assil and the Prince are both a little self-centered and annoying to people around them. Also, over the course of PoP:TSoT, the Prince gradually loses pieces of clothing, ultimately ending up shirtless. Assil is already shirtless. But Assil doesn’t have the Prince’s acrobatic ability to back up his arrogance. He’s basically Egyptian Guybrush, his successes based more on a willingness to embrace absurdity than on any kind of skill or virtue. (Indeed, multiple puzzles have emphasized his lack of skills: he can’t swim, can’t play the flute, is no good at handicrafts.) Now, when Guybrush first meets Elaine in Secret of Monkey Island, she’s instantly and bafflingly attracted to him for no apparent reason. This is an accurate depiction of how romantic relationships seem from the male perspective, but it clashes with everything else that’s established about Elaine’s personality to be jarring, as if Guybrush is unwittingly exerting some kind of creepy voodoo mind control or something. Farah, meanwhile, despite a definite and believable undercurrent of sexual tension, sees the Prince first and foremost as the source of her misfortunes, and never completely comes to trust him. So what do you get when Guybrush meets Farah? I’ll be returning to this vital question later.

Ankh: Into Chapter 2

So everything I speculated about in my previous post has turned out to be true. Fixing the camel wash was in fact just a matter of finding a hard-to-notice useable — hard to notice in part because it was part of a tree, rather than a discrete object in itself. This didn’t lead to cleaning the statue in the way I thought it would, but it did lead to cleaning the statue. I’ve seen the Pharaoh, who’s depicted as a comically despot along the same lines as Kuzco in The Emperor’s New Groove (a film that precedes Ankh, but not the game it’s based on, so who knows if there’s influence there). He didn’t fix my curse, though. He just sent me through a trap door into Chapter 2 (out of goodness knows how many) without even hearing me plead my case. I have another lead now, to go see the priests at the temple of Osiris instead, which isn’t going to require tricking my way past another guard. This game sure likes its guards.

Somewhere along the way, the task “ID_TODO_05b” got added to my task list. Whatever that was, I seem to have accomplished it.

My one big complaint about this game at this point, apart from the exoticizing premise, is that there’s so much walking around. This is really my main complaint about point-and-click adventures in general, and the reason I so seldom have the patience for them any more, but it’s made even worse when some of the rooms are on the other side of an expanse of desert. You can’t even run! The game does provide one shortcut: from within the desert, there’s a button that takes you back to the ferry dock. So once you’ve taken the time to trudge out to Giza, you can get back to Cairo pretty quickly. But it does provide an incentive to not leave Cairo. I know I have one more task out there on my list, but I have no reason to believe that I have the means to do it yet.

Back in Cairo, I do at least have some ideas: I need to get past that guard; conversation with the guard leads me to believe that I can trick my way past him if I can provide some music for him to dance to; I have a flute. Unfortunately, I cannot play the flute. Maybe I need some NPC help? This chapter also introduces a captive damsel,
possibly the Elaine Marley of the story given her feisty attitude, which is what got her locked up in the first place. Strangely, her rescue isn’t on my task list, but it’s clearly something I’m supposed to at least believe I’m supposed to do. Much of my opinion of this game as a Monkey Island imitation will depend on how that turns out.

Ankh: Goals

Not a lot of progress to report. I have some clear goals, and even some speculative ideas about how to accomplish them, but I think I’m at a point where everything is contingent on finding some useable object that I haven’t found yet. So all I can do is wander through all the rooms again, waving my cursor around and hoping.

So let’s talk about those goals. The main one is delivered in the opening cinematic, in which Assil, a young man in a white shendyt, receives a death curse from a mummy as a result of a minor accident. Assil is the player character. The only person who can lift the curse is the Pharaoh, so you have to gain access to his palace. The palace guards won’t let you through, but they’re terrified of crocodiles due to the recent incident with the pirates, so your obvious recourse is to either instigate or fake a new crocodile attack. And I’ve managed to obtain a few things that seem like they could be used as components of an ersatz crocodile, but Assil refuses to put them together. So I suppose I’m just left expanding where I can explore until I have the rest of the necessary resources, possibly including a taxidermist.

One of Assil’s friends tells him about a treasure map, which seems like a useful thing to pursue, but in order to buy it, he’ll need “a lot of gold”. I have a piece of old statuary that Assil thinks is probably gold underneath all the dirt, but I’ll need to clean it to find out. The waters of the Nile itself are inadequate for this purpose — that’s where I found the thing in the first place. I figure I probably have to use the camel wash station over in Giza, a mechanical device similar to a car wash, but it’s missing a crank. So, I need to find or make a crank. This is the kind of thing I’m talking about. Very clear goals, but after a few steps, they depend on things that I don’t know how to do.

One thing that’s been a great help: Pressing the tab key brings up a list of your current tasks, which can clarify things enormously. For example, at one point I tricked a tailor into giving me a pair of scissors by telling him it was my job to sharpen them. When I did this, my only thought was “Alright! I have a pair of scissors now! That’s bound to come in handy.” But when I later checked my task list, I saw that I was actually expected to sharpen the scissors and bring them back to the tailor. Once I knew that, I knew exactly what to do — sharpening the scissors is a minor puzzle in itself, but I had seen the place to do it, and only hadn’t done it yet because it hadn’t occurred to me that the whole business was anything more than a ruse.

Perhaps the task list was specifically a result of playtesting. Perhaps the reason that “sharpen the scissors for the tailor” is on the list is because other people, testing the game, had the same reaction as me. If so, it’s a good reaction for the developers to have, at the stage of development when reworking the puzzle will be too costly due to all the animation and voice acting being locked-in. The task list is just text. Text is cheap.

Ankh

Ankh, a 2005 comedic point-and-click adventure set in ancient Egypt, got onto the Stack in a roundabout way. It has two sequels, which somehow wound up in my Steam library, probably through some kind of adventure game bundle. I naturally wanted to play the first game before trying either of those, but strangely, it wasn’t on Steam, so I wend and found a copy on disc, probably from ebay. Some time later, before I got around to even removing the shrink wrap, it got put on Steam anyway, as an “Anniversary Edition”. And that’s what I’ve started playing now. The disc remains untouched.

I hadn’t heard of the Ankh series before it got steamed, but it was a hit in Germany, according to Wikipedia. Also from there I learn that the 2005 version is a remake of a 1998 game for the Acorn Archimedes. I have found essentially no other information about the original version, and how the 2005 version changes it. I assume that the graphics, at least, were completely redone. They’re completely 3D-modeled, something that the Archimedes could hardly support.

Its aim is fairly transparent: it wants to be Monkey Island But In Egypt. So everything is kind of cartoony and stylized, with rampant anachronisms and no attempt at historical accuracy. Egypt, it seems to me, is more prone to this than most places; the popular imagination in the West tends to compress literally thousands of years into a single concept of “ancient times”, as if the building of the great pyramids, the reign of Cleopatra, and the historically dubious exodus of the Jews all happened simultaneously. And once ancient times are over, it’s as if history somehow just stops happening to the place. That is the milieu of this game: Egypt Without Research.

It does a pretty good job of aping Monkey Island, though — possibly a better job than some of the later Monkey Island games — at least in terms of tone and rhythm. One thing struck me as particularly Monkey Island-ish: the use of multiple NPCs to deliver semi-contradictory fragments of backstory that mesh into a complete picture. In Monkey Island, this was how you learned about LeChuck. In Ankh, there’s this whole deal with a recent failed attack by pirates (just in case you hadn’t made the Monkey Island connection yet) inadvertently driving crocodiles into the palace grounds.

Happy Prime Day!

So I had this notion that once I was finished with The Watchmaker, I’d try streaming again. My bandwidth circumstances have changed somewhat since my last attempt, and there’s a good chance that I could put together a stream with a decent framerate now.

But Twitch is owned by Amazon, and as luck would have it, there’s a pretty major Amazon strike/boycott going on right now. So my return to streaming is postponed.

Rather than clutter up this blog with more announcements, I suggest that anyone interested in seeing me stream subscribe to my Twitch channel, https://www.twitch.tv/muckenhoupt, and/or my Twitter feed, @CarlMuckenhoupt.

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